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How and why Zwift will limit PowerUps during the esports world championships

The decision to curb PowerUps came as a compromise between the UCI and Zwift.

You can forget about seeing any ghosts, burritos, or anvils during Wednesday’s inaugural UCI esports world championships on Zwift.

Zwift has decided to limit the video game-inspired PowerUp features that are commonplace on the virtual cycling platform for the inaugural world championships race. These PowerUps give riders superhuman-like abilities for a brief duration during game play, and each one has a symbol like a burrito, a steamroller, and even an anvil.

There are seven total PowerUps that are used in normal Zwift game plan. For Wednesday’s Esports worlds, just two PowerUps will be available.

Jacob Fraser, a senior manager of brand experience at Zwift, said the UCI asked Zwift to curb the number of PowerUps in game play.

“The UCI likes structure they like some level of predictability and this is a totally new foray for them, in terms of using PowerUps, which at their nature are random,” said Jacob Fraser, a game designer at Zwift. “That’s the whole nature of gamification — something that’s outside everyone’s control.”

Riders will be allowed to obtain and use the feather (lightweight) and helmet (aero boost) PowerUps during the world championship race. The feather reduces a rider’s weight by 10 percent for 15 seconds, and the helmet decreases a rider’s coefficient of drag by 25 percent for 15 seconds.

That means the ghost (invisibility), steamroller (reduced rolling resistance), anvil (heavier for descents), van (draft boost), and burrito (turns off draft) PowerUps will be off-limits during the race.

Fraser said the decision represents a compromise between Zwift’s game designers and the UCI for the world championships events. Designers like himself wanted all of the PowerUps to be available for the game, while the UCI, Fraser said, wanted to eliminate them entirely. The middle ground the two groups landed on was allowing the two PowerUps that were easiest for newcomers to understand.

By having just two PowerUps available, riders have a 50-50 chance of obtaining one or the other during the event.

“The UCI maybe wanted no PowerUps — because it’s randomization. You, in theory, could have all of the riders cross the line and one person gets a PowerUp that the other riders don’t, and that could propel them to the victory,” Fraser said. “The compromise we found is using two PowerUps, so everyone has a 50-50 chance to get one.

“What you’ll see is a good balancing act between where the gamification comes in — which is what we’re most excited about as players and Zwift employees — and what the UCI wants, which is some predictability and fairness across the board,” he continued.

Riders obtain PowerUps by passing under specific banners along the Zwift racecourse, and which PowerUp they receive is decided randomly by the Zwift algorithm. Riders can then deploy that PowerUp whenever he or she would like (by pressing the spacebar on a laptop or an on-screen button on the Companion App), and then obtain another PowerUp after passing under another banner.

During Wednesday’s world championships race, men and women will have 11 opportunities to obtain PowerUps along the course.

The decision will undoubtedly impact the racing dynamics for the men’s and women’s world championships. Both races have attracted a smattering of dedicated Zwift veterans, WorldTour stars from pro road racing, and riders who straddle both communities.

Holden Comeau of Team Saris-The Pro’s Closet said the decision to limit the PowerUps to just two could make the racing more dynamic. Comeau said PowerUps often go unused during elite Zwift races when six or seven are made available.

“In most Zwift races, we are typically ‘on the hunt’ for the PowerUp we want. And because it’s rare to get the one we want we usually sit on it and wait for the end of the race to use it where it is most impactful,” Comeau told VeloNews. “Most of the race then is completed without using PowerUps, because everyone is saving them until the end.”

On Wednesday, Comeau said, riders may be more inclined to use the PowerUps throughout the race, which could create more dynamic racing. Comeau is racing for the United States during the race.

“Given that both of these PowerUps would be relevant for the finish, I think racers are going to feel very comfortable burning them mid-race and knowing that there will be plenty of additional chances to get another one,” he said. “The PowerUp decision means that riders are going to be using them all race, which adds a unique dynamic since typically PowerUps are used far more strategically and less often.”

In short, the racing could be fun to watch even without burritos or steamrollers.